GELFAND’S WORLD--This week, the nation's press and pundits are all aflutter about Donald Trump's response to a question that came up in Wednesday's third and final presidential debate. Trump refused to agree to accept the results of the November 8 election. His answer is being quoted by every commentator: "I will look at it at the time," but it might just as well have been, "I'll jump off that bridge when I come to it." My view is that the editorial writers are taking a rather pessimistic view of the American people in treating this one remark as the most newsworthy event of the evening.
First of all, let's make the point that a Trump loss without a formal concession speech would not be the worst outcome ever for an American presidential election. Consider one previous election back in the 1860s, when the state of South Carolina attacked a federal fortification and seceded from the United States. They didn't even wait until Lincoln's inauguration.
So when Trump loses, it hardly matters whether he makes a gracious concession speech, engages in fiery rhetoric, or says nothing at all. It's not going to lead to a civil war. The fiery rhetoric would actually be better for his reputation, because his failure to say anything would just mark him as a pouting loser.
Perhaps I'm being a little naive here, but I took Trump's response to be an attempt at his Trumpian form of standup comedy. His follow up line, "I will keep you in suspense," made that point. What he may have been trying to say in effect was that we are all getting a little tired of the pomposity of debate moderators, so take this question and shove it.
Of course turning the presidential election into one big joke is not what normal people expect, but it's in line with the entire Trump campaign. I suspect that the long-term interpretation of that response eventually will be that Trump came unprepared for this question -- unprepared in the deeper political sense -- just as he has been unprepared on so many other topics.
This is my day to be optimistic about American democracy (fueled in part by the substantial repudiation of Trump's answer by so many well known conservatives). Assuming Hillary Clinton wins, which is becoming ever more likely, the majority of the American people will accept the result as legitimate. It's true that some will refuse to accept the result, but that would be the case whether Trump concedes or not. Most of us will tune in to the inauguration on January 20 and watch the peaceful transfer of power. Those who have some grasp of world history (and particularly European history) will be thankful.
As to the debate itself, a few points are worth making. Let's start with the lesson of Richard Nixon and John Kennedy from their initial debate back in 1960. Historians love to tell us that people who heard the presidential debate on the radio either called it a draw or felt that Nixon won marginally. But television viewers got a favorable view of John Kennedy and an unflattering view of Nixon when picture was added to sound.
Somehow, Donald Trump didn't get the memo. In contrast to Hillary Clinton's poise, he couldn't keep himself from twitching, frowning, smirking, and interrupting. He did a little better job of holding back on the interruptions during the first half hour or so, where he appeared to be scripted and rehearsed. His answers were plainly arguable from the intellectual standpoint, but he had his words in grammatical order and his attacks followed one another in some semblance of structure.
In this, he seemed to have help from the moderator, who has paradoxically been praised for his performance in a lot of places. It's true that he asked real questions and largely stayed away from Bill Clinton's sex life, but his economic biases came through. Particularly when he brought up the national debt, his question, you might say, was questionable. One commentator on the Daily Kos website who writes under the pseudonym dcg2 summed up the moderator's approach deftly. The moderator took it as a given that a mounting national debt is a bad thing, even though some serious economists point out that we don't, at this time, have an economic problem based on the debt.
And yes, it's true that the questions thrown at the candidates were filtered through the conservative perspective, without raising real world worries such as climate change or the continuing loss of union power. This had two opposing effects, one negative and one positive. The negative effect was to force the more liberal candidate to recite a few conservative platitudes such as creating a deficit-free federal budget. The more positive side is that it allowed Hillary Clinton to present the liberal argument on topics such as Planned Parenthood, Roe vs. Wade, and social security, all without some obnoxious talk show host constantly interrupting her. There are not all that many opportunities for the liberal side to tell its story to conservative viewers, and Hillary made use of this one.
Speaking of interruptions, the Donald managed to hold himself in check for that first half hour or so. Perhaps he shouldn't have agreed to participate in 90 minute debates, because he obviously cannot maintain self control for more than a few moments. His style of interrupting with the word "wrong" escalated through the evening, leading to his most serious mistake of the evening, his interruption with the phrase, "Such a nasty woman." Perhaps Trump was trying to play to those who have been propagandized against the Clintons for decades, but the remark will reverberate against him for the remainder of the campaign.
After the debate, I chatted with a few people to get their take. One view struck me as perspicacious: Trump comes across as somebody who is used to talking to underlings. In that context, he can interrupt, insult, and be dead wrong, and he doesn't expect to be corrected. In short, he expects to be treated as the boss. Some of this came out earlier in the campaign, when he complained about debate moderators such as Megyn Kelly. He expects subservience from most everyone, and goes ballistic when he doesn't get it.
In the world of the corporate board meeting, the CEO presides not as an equal, but literally as the boss. There is a big contrast in candidate debates, where no candidate has the right to rule over the others. Trump understands this at some intellectual level, but his lifelong habits, now ingrained as instincts, keep pushing him towards the boss role. He appears unable to help himself, and keeps succumbing to his instincts by making irritating interruptions.
Some of the deeper thinking pundits are beginning to understand that Hillary Clinton is not just the passive beneficiary of Trump's ineptitude. She, along with her otherwise invisible campaign staff, have played Trump like a violin, and he has cooperated in his own downfall.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])